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Cyber attribution: Why it won't be easy to stop the blame game

The “who” in a whodunit has always been the most crucial element, but when it comes to cyberattacks, that conventional wisdom has been turned on its head.

A growing chorus of infosec experts in recent years has argued that cyber attribution of an attack is the least important aspect of the incident, far below identification, response and remediation. Focusing on attribution, they say, can distract organizations from those more important elements. Some experts such as Dragos CEO Robert Lee have even asserted that public attribution of cyberattacks can do more harm than good.

I tend to agree with many of the critiques about attribution, especially the dangers of misattribution. But a shift away from cyber attribution could be challenging for several reasons.

First, nation-state cyberattacks have become an omnipresent issue for both the public as well as enterprises. Incidents like the Sony Entertainment hack or, more recently, the breach of the Democratic National Committee’s network have dominated headlines and the national consciousness. It’s tough to hear about the latest devastating hack or data breach and not immediately wonder if Iran or Russia or North Korea is behind it. There’s a collective desire to know who is responsible for these events, even if that information matters little to the actual victims of the attacks.

Second, attribution is a selling point for the vendors and security researchers that publish detailed threat reports on a near-daily occurrence. The infosec industry is hypercompetitive, and that applies not just to products and technology but threat and vulnerability research, which has emerged in recent years as a valuable tool for branding and marketing. A report that describes a cyberattacks on cryptocurrency exchanges might get lost in the mix with other threat reports; a report that attributes that activity to state-sponsored hackers in North Korea, however, is likely to catch more attention. Asking vendors and researchers to withhold attribution, therefore, is asking them to give up a potential competitive differentiator.

And finally, on the attention note, the media plays an enormous role here. Journalists are tasked with finding out the “who, what, when, where and why” of a given news event, and that includes a cyberattack. Leaving out the “who” is a tough pill to swallow. The larger and more devastating the attack, the more intense the media pressure is for answers about which advanced persistent threat (APT) group is responsible. But even with smaller, less important incidents, there is considerable appetite for attribution (and yes, that includes SearchSecurity). Will that media appetite influence more vendors and research teams to engage in public attribution? And where should the infosec community draw a line, if one should be drawn at all?

This is not to say that cyber attribution doesn’t matter. Nation-state APT groups are generally considered to be more skilled and dangerous than your average cybercrime gang, and the differences between the two can heavily influence how an organization reacts and responds to a threat. But there is also a point at which engaging in public attribution can become frivolous and potentially detrimental.

A larger industry conversation about the merits and drawbacks of cyber attribution is one worth having, but the overwhelming desire to identify the actors behind today’s threats and attackers isn’t something that will be easily quelled.

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